Friday, July 13, 2018

Gulf Islands - Pensacola Lighthouse

Although it’s the Forgotten Coast that is known for its lighthouses on this stretch of the Gulf, the Emerald Coast holds its own; the Pensacola Lighthouse is a striking addition to the region that allows for a different perspective of Florida’s scenic coastline.

If you plan on visiting the Pensacola Lighthouse, be aware that it is located within the Naval Air Station Pensacola, an active military base. All civilian visitors must enter through the West Gate (beware your GPS directions!) and must show proper identification; please see the lighthouse website for more details. On our recent visit we were more prepared than the time we tried to visit the Cape Henry Lighthouse (as in, we knew we would be visiting a military installation!), and made it through the security checkpoint with little delay.

The lighthouse is open to visitors daily (except for certain holidays) from 9am to 5pm, however the last climber is admitted to the tower at 4:45pm so make sure to give yourself plenty of time to get through the security checkpoint. Admission is $7/adult, $4/children under 12, $4/seniors and $4/military. Please note that on days that the Blue Angels are practicing there is an increased admission of $20 and reservations are required as space is limited (see my post on the National Naval Aviation Museum for more on the Blue Angels).

Construction of the first lighthouse in the area was begun in 1824, resulting in a 40ft white brick tower equipped with 10 whale oil lamps. Over the next thirty years Fort Pickens was constructed at the western tip of Santa Rosa Island, Fort McRee was built at the eastern tip of Perdido Key, and Fort Barrancas was built on the bluffs a half a mile east, the three forts tasked with defending the mouth of Pensacola Bay. Florida was admitted to the Union, and then in 1854 funds were appropriated to replace the Pensacola Lighthouse. Construction began a half mile west of the original in 1856, and on New Year’s Day, 1859, the new lighthouse was lit for the first time. 151ft tall, it boasted a first-order Fresnel lens.

In 1861, Florida seceded from the Union; Confederate troops took Forts Barrancas & McRee and along with them the lighthouse, and in December the base of the tower was struck by shot from Fort Pickens and damaged in at least three places. When Union forces took possession in 1862, a captured fourth-order lens was installed, the first-order lens not being restored until 1869. Over the years the lighthouse was damaged by elements ranging from lightning to ducks, but the structure survived earthquakes and hurricanes as well as full automation to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

Named one of the most haunted lighthouses in the US, the Travel Channel and Syfy’s Ghost Hunters have investigated the site (See season 5 episode 22 of Ghost Hunters). Today visitors can take a ghost tour in the historic 1869 Keeper's Quarters, or purchase a copy of Ghostly Beacons: Haunted Lighthouses of North America in the gift shop to learn more about the various grisly happenings that have happened over the years, and the paranormal activity that supposedly goes on in this 160 year old structure.

We crossed to the lighthouse in the dappled shade of enormous live oaks, and then it was 177 steps to reach one of the most beautiful views on the Gulf Coast. We could see Fort Pickens and the white sands of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, the dark green treetops of pines and oaks scattered through the military base, and in the distance the skyline of Pensacola. Just to the east was Fort Barrancas, on our itinerary for later on in the morning, and beyond it all stretched the blue waters of the Gulf.

Only two of the boys elected to climb with me, and so Roberts stayed grounded with Vilis while we went on our lighthouse adventure. The 1890s Carriage House was renovated in the 1990s to serve as the Visitor’s Center and museum shop, and when they were done exploring that they headed out to blue waters on the short Nature Trail. Although no swimming is allowed, the crystalline waters of the Bay and Gulf washing up on the white sand beach are always a treat for bare feet.

We timed our visit to coincide with cooler morning temperatures, heading to the adjacent National Naval Aviation Museum (and air conditioning) once the heat settled in. The boys agree that the climb to the top was worth it, and we suggest a stop at the Pensacola Lighthouse for anyone visiting the area.

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